For a while it looked like Les Rolston’s latest book about the Civil War would never go to press. Rolston had an idea for the book but the research wasn’t heading in the direction he intended.
“This book almost didn’t happen,” he said in an interview on Saturday. “Given the headlines about the problems of veterans and the way they were being treated at Walter Reed and the debates about immigration, I wanted to tell the story about immigrants who were promised nothing more than a job when they landed and were met by recruiters. They were offered just a job, with no guarantee of citizenship yet went on to earn the Medal of Honor.”
At least that was the idea. Unfortunately, the sources Rolston wanted to base his story on were incomplete.
“My primary sources would be the military, pension and Medal of Honor files kept on each of these men within the National Archives in Washington,” he said.
“The files often contain letters, newspaper clippings, medical records and legal documents. It was important that I tell the story of what happened to these men after the war.”
He soon found out that wouldn’t be easy. Hundreds of immigrant soldiers received the award and he wanted a balance of nationalities. Unfortunately, many of the files were gone – lost, misfiled or stolen. Rolston had to narrow the scope and broaden his research.
“The stories I told were of men from such diverse places as Norway, Russia, Sweden, Chile, Malta and Spain,” he said, “and of course, Ireland and England.”
He found men like John Ortega, who was born in Spain in 1840. He enlisted in the Union Navy in Pennsylvania and was assigned to the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of the Union blockade of Confederate ports. Ortega was in landing parties that took prisoners, destroyed ammunition, supplies, buildings and bridges.
“Carrying out his duties courageously during these actions, Ortega conducted himself gallantly through both periods. Promoted to acting master’s mate,” and received the Medal of Honor on Dec. 31, 1864. He was the first Hispanic sailor to receive the award and then he just disappeared.
“John Ortega filed his Declaration of Intent to become a United States citizen with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on October 2, 1863,” wrote Rolston. “No record of his life after the war, whether through census or searches at the libraries, Civil War roundtables, historical societies and the places where he had lived, ever surfaced. There is no known record of his burial and he has no file at the National Archives.”
That may have been just as well, because some of the files that Rolston did get to see were telling stories that should have made all Americans blush.
“Disabled veterans, all disabled veterans had to provide yearly affidavits attesting to their continuing disabilities,” said Rolston. “If they didn’t, they wouldn’t get the $10 a month allowed to them. Even then, the government was trying to make it difficult for them to get benefits, to discourage them from trying. All these guys wanted, as medal recipients, was the extra $10 it entitled them to.”
Rolston tells the story of Denis Murphy, an Irish immigrant from Wisconsin who was a color bearer in an important charge and was shot in the hand and hip but kept moving forward with everyone following him until he was shot through the chest and stopped.
Then you read about him writing to the government, trying to find out where his pension was.
“‘How soon do I get my claim?’” quoted Rolston, who knows that officers most likely got better treatment. “‘Me being a private, you don’t make any account of it.’ His descendants said he used to sit and polish his rifle and never seemed more proud.”
There are records of a Belgian national, 44-year-old Private Albert Oss, who enlisted on July 16, 1862 at Newark and was at Falmouth shortly after that. Falmouth was a miserable muddy place that was dubbed the Union’s “Valley Forge.”
In a subsequent battle, Oss, according to his citation, “remained in the rifle pits after the others had retreated, firing constantly, and contesting the ground step by step.”
Rolston said his actions allowed the others to retreat and rally.
“Unfortunately,” wrote Rolston, “with no pension file to be found, little else is known about Albert Oss the civilian. His military file reveals that he was severely wounded in the right knee on July 2, 1863 at Gettysburg.”
He was mustered out and settled in New Jersey, according to other sources, and was a shoemaker after the war. He married a Belgian-born woman named Annette, who he called Anna, and together they raised two children, Charles and Mary. Oss received the Congressional Medal of Honor on May 6, 1892. He died on Dec. 18, 1898, in Kearney, N.J., at an old soldiers’ home.
Chilean-born Philip Bazaar enlisted in the United States Navy as an Ordinary Seaman in New Bedford, Mass., on May 18, 1864. Seven months later he was on the U.S.S. Santiago de Cuba off the coast of North Carolina. The objective was a Confederate stronghold outside of Wilmington called Fort Fisher. During the assault on the fort, which was a combined army-navy effort, Bazaar volunteered to carry messages to the commanding officers on the shore. After a bloody three-day fight, Union forces took the fort.
“The world never saw such fighting as our soldiers did,” said Rear-Admiral David Porter.
Bazaar was awarded the Medal of Honor on June 22, 1865. His citation reads: “On board the U.S.S. Santiago de Cuba during the assault on Fort Fisher on 15 January 1865. As one of a boat crew detailed to one of the generals on shore, O.S. Bazaar bravely entered the fort in the assault and accompanied his party in carrying dispatches at the height of the battle. He was one of six men who entered the fort in the assault from the fleet.”
No files relating to Bazaar or his military service exists at the National Archives.
“Extensive searches at historical societies and libraries yielded no results,” wrote Rolston, “His place of burial is unknown. Perhaps he returned to Chile.”
Perhaps the most poignant story in the book is that of Thomas Plunkett, a veteran of the Battle of Fredericksburg who had both arms blown off. Before the battle in which he lost his arms, Plunkett came upon a wounded Union colonel leaning against a barn and gave him water and saved his life. The colonel turned out to be Rutherford B. Hayes and the two veterans became friends for life.
“They used to write to each other, after Plunkett learned to write with a pen tucked in his cheek,” said Rolston. “But the most notable part of his story is when he was about to marry his fiancé back home. About a day before the wedding, his fiancé said, ‘I just can’t do it,’ she could not get past it [his not having arms]. Then her sister steps up and says to him, ‘I have been in love with you forever,’ and she marries him.”
But Rolston has not composed yet another paean to the bravery of the men who fought the Civil War. What he has done is to bring to life what happened to these Medal of Honor winners and the frequently shoddy treatment they got from bureaucrats after the war, especially having to qualify as disabled.
“There was one report [from a government worker] that said a veteran had only one eye, varicose veins and severe hemorrhoids, but other than that he’s healthy.”
It seems fitting and even ironic that the book would come the day before Veterans Day, but the world really doesn’t need another book about incompetent bureaucrats, but it can always use a book like “Home of the Brave” that gathers the record out of the dust of the past and brings real people back to life.
“I wanted to tell the stories of these people after the war, their struggle to survive and fend for their families,” said Rolston. “Not what they did but who they were.”
There will be a book release party for “Home of the Brave” at O’Rourke’s Bar and Grill, 23 Peck Lane in Pawtuxet on Nov. 10 from 1 to 5 p.m. There will be complimentary appetizers and a cash bar and entertainment by Boudreau and Macey and comedian Dave Watson. You can buy or order the book – or just party, and then ask Rolston to explain what “Sound on the goose” means.